In discussions about the ease or difficulty with which one may attain the so-called "American Dream" it is not uncommon to hear that in the past, a family needed only a single wage earner in order to attain the alleged dream.
This is generally based on assumptions about the the past in which it is imagined that most married women stayed home and provided domestic services such as cooking and cleaning and childcare. They did the family's shopping, took the children to school, and managed the household.
Now, since the rise of industrialization and departure of working men to a place of work other than the home (of the fields surrounding it) there is no doubt that women took on a role of household management, which grew in economic importance as time went on.
The question remains as to whether or not most households could afford to have the wife do nothing other than household chores and household management.
It appears plausible that many upper middle-class women could indeed afford to do this. Outside of households in the upper reaches of household income, however, attaining the much-vaunted "single-income family" wasn't as easy as many today assume. This can be seen in the fact the number of wage-earning married women, contrary to myth, slowly grew continually throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Moreover, some observers tend to attribute changes in the the working habits of married women only to economic need. But, as we will see, changes in the social acceptability of wage-earning married women changed over time, and not necessarily as a result of economic need. Thus, it is inappropriate to assume women enter the workforce primarily in order to maintain a standard of living that had allegedly been attainable with only one income previously.
A Brief History of the Housewife
Prior to industrialization, the idea of the stay-at-home housewife didn't even exist in most families, largely because it was simply assumed that both husband and wife needed to constantly attend to a wide variety of productive tasks at home. Those tasks were often segregated, but it was assumed that while the husband worked in the fields, the wife would spin yarn on a wheel, attend to the dairy animals, prepare meals, and wash clothing. These were not minor or quickly-accomplished tasks.
As an ideal, the housewife gained increasing popularity during the nineteenth century in part because it seemed possible for middle-class women to possibly attain what was seen as the "idle" lifestyle of upper-class women. Thus, a woman who did no wage work or production work was seen as having attained a higher status.
Over time, this became ingrained in the idea of proper "womanhood," but rarely — prior to the twentieth century, at least — did it ever have much to do with everyday reality. Susan Cruea writes:
The vision of women as wan, ethereal, spiritualized creatures bore little relation to the real world,especially of the working class, where women operated machines, worked the fields, hand-washed clothing, and toiled over great kitchen stoves. Even middle-class girls raised to be idle and submissive found themselves overwhelmed when it came to managing household duties as wives and mothers.
Nor was avoiding this fate a simple matter of finding a quality husband.
Massive economic changes in America also made arranging a desirable marriage difficult. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg notes that commercialization, industrialization, and advancements in transportation led to a mass departure of young men from the New Eng-land agricultural area "either to the West or to the new urban frontier." As a result, women's marital opportunities became limited, and more were forced to seek employment.
Economic historian Claudia Goldin has pointed out the importance of wage work to young and single women who greatly swelled the ranks of wage workers in the late nineteenth century. Once they married, however — assuming the new household was relatively well off — the women usually left the workforce.
This avoidance of wage work, however, could not be assumed in most cases. Sociologist Juliet Schor writes:
At least until late in the nineteenth century, most families could not afford to devote the labor of an adult solely to housecleaning, cooking, and mothering. Although social mores confined them to the home, married women, especially among the working classes and the poor, remained enmeshed in the cash economy. They earned income by taking in laundry, accepting boarders, or doing piecework. In rural areas, they worked on family farms. A large fraction of the population relied on this money for survival.
Throughout the early twentieth century, much of this work done by women in the cash economy remained informal because more institutional types of employment were closed to married women as part of the so-called "marriage bar."
Why were housewives effectively excluded from the market? Among middle-class women, outright prohibitions on suitable jobs played a crucial role. In teaching and clerical work, women faced "marriage bars" - restrictions against the hiring of married women, or the firing of single women once they did marry. According to economic historian Claudia Goldin, at their peak, these bars were used by 87 percent of local school districts and covered 50 percent of office workers. Teaching and office work were two of the most important occupations for middle-class women whose class position would prevent them from going into factories or other work from which they were not barred.
In the working class, married women were also excluded from the labor market. Their (male) trade-union movement had long argued against women's employment in manufacturing industries. ... Men fought to be paid a "family wage" — remuneration generous enough to "support" a wife at home. But it was not only outright discrimination that kept women out of the labor market. There was also the sense that a family with a full-time housewife had achieved a privileged position in society.
In other words, the number of women "who stayed home" was artificially inflated by the presence of marriage bars and social mores. The number who stayed home was not simply a matter of economic abundance making a single-income household easily attainable.
But even with these marriage bars in place (which nonetheless went into steep decline in the 1940s), the number of married women going into wage work increased throughout the 1930s to the 1950s. Goldin notes:
From 1930 to 1950 the labor force participation rate for married women 35 to 44 years old in-creased by 15.5 percentage points, or from about 10 percent to 25 percent. Whereas just 8 percent of employed women were married in 1890, the number rose to 26 percent in 1930 and 47 percent in 1950. The fraction of single women in the labor force had not declined by much.Rather, the labor force participation of married women had increased substantially.
For married women in the 35- to 44-year-old group, participation increased from 25 to 46 percent from 1950 to 1970.
Some of this was facilitated by the new appearance of "scheduled part time work" which allowed many married women to enter into employment involving fewer than 35-hours per week.
"Need" vs Preference
There are a few things we can extrapolate from this information, and which are relevant to the idea that, allegedly, women did not "need" to engage in any wage work in the past.
First of all, it is simply not true that mothers and married women did not take on wage work or participate in the cash economy prior to the second half of the twentieth century. Agricultural women, of course, did manual labor all day long. But even as these households transitioned to industrial-based economies, married women still took on other types of additional work to supplement incomes. This was especially true in the working classes and lower-middle classes.
Secondly, it's important to remember that the number of women in the workforce was suppressed by social convention and by active, concerted efforts to keep married women out of the work force. Essentially, the marriage bar and efforts by labor unions acted to make it much harder for women to find "respectable" employment. While the marriage bar did not cover all types of employment, social convention prevented many middle-class women from taking jobs as laborers or factory workers. This sort of work was socially unacceptable. Thus, it is not appropriate to assign "economic need" the same level of importance in all time periods. Even if need existed in the days of the marriage bar, many families elected to simply do without in order to conform to social rules.
Thirdly, it is likely many women entered the workforce as a matter of personal preference and due to the desire for an even higher standard of living. The fact that many women chose to enter the work force over these decades cannot be just assumed to be a function of a supposed decline in real wages. The increase may just as much be a function of the fact that many women chose to enter the workforce because they wanted to — and because it became more socially acceptable — and not just as a function of income needed to maintain a certain standard of living.
In fact, from 1950 to 1970, real wages increased considerably. This would not be the case if women had to enter the workforce "just to keep up" or just to maintain a formerly affordable standard of living as many contend to be true when they point to women joining the workforce after World War II. If that were true, real wages would be flat or nearly flatduring the period in question. As Goldin has described, nearly half of married women in the 35-44 year-old group — right in the middle of child-raising years — chose to enter the work force by 1970, either on a full time or part time basis. And this occurred while household incomes were increasing over the previous two decades.
So, it is not evident that because more women chose to enter the workforce after 1950 that this somehow "proves" the standard of living open to single-earner households was declining.
Moreover, while many contend the "American Dream" was becoming unattainable, we actually find that households were expanding their ownership of homes and cars at the same time more women were joining the work force.
As we've seen, the average size of homes US homes increased by two-thirds from 1967 to 2017, and increased from around 1,000 square feet to over 1,600 square feet from 1950 to 1970. All the while, the number of women joining the workforce increased. At the same time, the number of automobiles available to US households increased significantly during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The number of households with no car was nearly cut in half from 21 percent to 12 percent from 1960 to 1980. The number of households with access to two or more cars nearly doubled from around 22 percent in 1960 to about 53 percent in 1980.
Some might claim that was because married women "were forced" to get jobs, and thus needed transportation to that jobs. However, one might just as plausibly claim that many women wanted access to their own automobiles, and preferred wage work and an automobile to no wage work and no automobile.
And this brings us to the fundamental problem of assuming that women "have to" enter the workforce. Given that the US standard of living is far, far above subsistence levels, it's obviously not the case that average American households "cannot survive" on a single income. On the contrary, it's obvious that most American households today could certainly attain what would have been considered a middle-class standard of living during the 1950s and 1960s: a 1,000 square foot two-bedroom, one-bath house with a carport for the family's one car. There were rarely annual vacations to resort-like places out-of-state or overseas. In-home electronic entertainment consisted of a single television with four or five channels.
The fact is, however, that most American households don't want that sort of standard of living. They want smart phones, and an automobile for each adult. They don't want the children to have to share a bedroom. They want cable television.
Consequently, many households have elected to choose the benefits of higher incomes — and the downside of less leisure time and child-parent time — for the benefits of a higher material standard of living. It is also entirely possible that many couples would have preferred to do the same in the first half of the twentieth century had it been more socially acceptable to do so.
Usually, when people contend that in the past a single income brought a cornucopia of wealth manifested in the American Dream, they tend to base this on anecdotal experience from the point of view of a middle-class person who grew up in the mid twentieth century. These people forget that the standard of living was much lower then, and they also don't realize that the number of hours worked by the one household breadwinner tended to be higher than in later decades.